Oration | Address to Convocation
A sociologist by training, Monique Bégin served as executive secretary of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada from 1969-1970, followed by two years in research at the CRTC before becoming the first woman from Quebec elected to the House of Commons, as a Liberal in 1972.
Re-elected in 1974, 1979 and 1980, she was appointed parliamentary secretary to the minister of Foreign
Affairs (1975-76). Sworn in as minister of National Revenue in 1976, she then went on to become minister of National Health and Welfare from 1977-1984. She remains best known for the Canada Health Act (1984).
Mme. Bégin left politics in 1984 to return to the world of academe. She taught at University of Notre Dame and at McGill before becoming, in 1986, the first holder of the joint chair in women's studies at Ottawa and Carleton universities. Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at University of Ottawa from 1990-97, she also chaired the Royal Commission on Learning of Ontario and served on the International Independent Commission on Population and Quality of Life.
She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and has received several honorary doctorates in recognition of her contribution to human rights and to public policies. In 1998, she was invested as officer of the Order of Canada. Named professor emeritus in 1997, she currently teaches at the master's health administration program at the University of Ottawa.
Mme. Bégin will receive an honorary doctor of laws degree.
Oration honouring Dr. Monique Bégin
Jean Guthrie, university orator
Broadcasting, arts and culture, immigration, pensioners' supplements, the Child Tax Credit, medical research funding, Inuit health: these are some of the concerns advanced in Ottawa by the Honourable Monique Bégin, who honours us with her presence today. But the culmination of her political career is the Canada Health Act of 1984, which enshrined universality, accessibility, and comprehensiveness, built in penalties to discourage privatization, and defined medicare as we know it. That it has served so well, even as greed governs, and that Americans would love to have its entirely manageable problems, we thank Monique Bégin's foresight, determination and passion for equality of access.
Since then she has carried her commitment to regenerating social policy into other careers and is still adding to the record. And, thoughtful as in everything she does, she has also provided us with a candid image of her experiences as a woman in politics: that of a lone traveller in tough terrain.
Now today's graduates in medicine, humanities and social sciences have done little reading in common over the past few years. However, if educated in this province, they probably all read Lure of the Labrador Wild by Dillon Wallace, but, in school at least, they did not read A Woman's Way Through Unknown Labrador by Mina Hubbard; nor did they write essays about the journey she made in 1905 by canoe from Hamilton Inlet to Ungava Bay, arriving well ahead of Wallace, or about how, while the Royal Geographic Society in London was still dithering over whether “travellers in skirts” were capable of scientific thinking, Mina Hubbard furnished the American Geographic Society with information that changed the map of Labrador. This at a time when our wilderness was a testing ground for masculinity, and “wandering women” were an affront to feminine decency. Not too different from Ottawa in the seventies.
From Homer to Hobsbawm, from sainthood to state craft, Monique Bégin has always been an avid reader. Well before setting out on the courageous travels which mapped new routes for women, and changed Canada's political geography, she read saints' lives and biographies of Catherine the Great. It was Canada's gain that she resisted the life of the convent, though perhaps her thinking about health care was guided by the story of Saint Monegund, who kissed the sores of lepers. Without extra-billing. And when in 1976 Bégin found herself in the male-defined culture of the Liberal cabinet with only one other woman, she doubtless recognized anew the value of such works as Sainted Women of the Dark Ages.
A key stage in Monique Bégin's journey of discovery was her exemplary work with the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. As executive secretary, she channelled an avalanche of testimony from women all over the country into the charter for ending women's second-class status — under the law, in education, in the work-force, and in the public sphere; legislation followed, changing forever the lives of Canadians, male and female. To mention but one example, women students were then just a third of university enrolment, and of medical students women were only 12.5 per cent. If we had waited for time alone to change the landscape, many of our graduates would not be here today.
In Monique Bégin's vibrant sequence of careers, firsts abound, all of them taken as opportunities to build. As minister of Health and Welfare over three parliaments, she was both leader and listener, working tirelessly to include professional and lay groups in the shaping of the Health Act. She eagerly debated issues that had important social consequences; because she was a woman on trial for women, she made sure her brief was flawless; but in competing for power, she had no interest. Hence her dedication to Health and Welfare over seven years, when senior male politicians preferred to switch portfolios and so better their chances of leadership. Hence her decision to leave politics rather than compete to lead her party when she had new contributions yet to make. Hence her brave acknowledgement of responsibility when the Krever Commission was investigating the tainted blood scandal. Hence her recent public appeals for rigorous report cards on our health system to counter our media's melodramatic fixation on selected trouble spots. Hence her continuing support for the restructuring of funding for medical research. Hence her recent co-chairing of the International Commission on Population, whose report's title sums up all her accomplishments: Caring for the Future.
In her latest careers, Monique Bégin's energy and integrity have made her a valued university teacher and administrator. Catherine the Great once told Voltaire that theorists have a poor view from the height of their attic. As professor emerita, teaching in the Faculty of Administration at Ottawa, Monique Bégin gives her students the view from the centre of the struggle. As dean of Health Sciences, she skilfully integrated disparate units into a new faculty and even extended her territorial boundaries without academic bloodshed. Catherine looks on in envy.
Mr. Chancellor, our candidate's still unfolding careers have replaced the lone-explorer narrative with vigorous dialogues in many voices which she continues to initiate, mediate, and cultivate into social action. Please confer the degree of doctor of laws (honoris causa) on a national leader and treasure: fédéraliste, féministe, humaniste, activiste, Monique Bégin.
Addressing a convocation ceremony is one of the most formal and difficult speaking situations I ever found myself in, although, by opposition, nothing is easier than talking with students in other circumstances. The officiality of the room, the pageantry of the past and the heavy protocol, all contribute to a contrived atmosphere. To tell you the whole truth, as a woman, I feel like if I had suddenly become a bishop dispensing the wise words from the pulpit — an absolute oxymoron. Today's ceremony at Memorial is different, but even more of a challenge, since I find myself speaking after and before wonderful and consummate public performers — those of the stage and screen, both houses confounded.
Nevertheless, here are the wise words I want to leave you with.
Today is like an island in your life, a unique day you will remember forever, and I hope you feel good about it. You have accomplished something. Each of you just completed successfully a multi-year project — no small achievement. It will always be a building block in your life, past and future. Congratulations! Some of you have already started working; some in fact never stopped working. Others are looking for work — summer jobs or “real” employment. Maybe a few are lucky enough that they won't have to work before September. I hope they travel, far away and for long. In fact, this is something I wish everyone of you. If not this summer, then next year. Or at some point in your life, and more than once. Travelling or living elsewhere, especially in another country, another continent, is about “the difference”, about curiosity and knowledge, friendship, initiative, calculated risk taking, sharing, and much more. It is also an unexpected journey of self-discovery.
So where will you be after the summer? A number of the medical graduates, if not all, will be completing their education through clinical work and specialization. Some of you with a first university degree will go for a master's or a doctorate. Studies will then frame time for a few more years ahead of you. After? Who knows! I still go blank when asked, usually seriously and unexpectedly, what do I plan/want to do next. How do I know? Hard to tell if I drove my life or if life drove me. For life is not still; to paraphrase Nina Berberova, a wonderful Russian writer who just died, in her nineties, at Princeton: “I am not a rock; I am a river.” Which is not to say that she sat passively awaiting opportunities and challenges, or that she was a follower going with the current. What she goes on explaining is that things around us are never really fixed. The physical world, as well as the society we live in, are constantly evolving. One logical conclusion is that, whatever the circumstances you may find yourselves in, you do have choices.
Change — to the economy, at work, in our cities, and so on — used to be accidental, temporary, a momentary crisis we had to go through before returning to business as usual. It has now become the new norm of our lives, a possibly enriching feature for human beings but a destabilizing and stressful one as well. Institutions are of course particularly slow to change, and to make change part of their dynamics offers them an added difficult challenge. Still, I believe that the realization that life is about change, multiple changes, is overall of great benefit.
For many years, in my heart of heart, I felt that I was a failure in terms of what society expected. (Mind you, I was smart enough to never tell anyone and today is the first time I express this thought.) I had started teaching small kids when I was 19, but I wanted to study and that took money. I quit teaching, became a secretary, studied on evenings and weekends; got a master's in sociology after everybody else and almost by miracle; could not finish my doctoral studies at La Sorbonne, again because of lack of money. I changed work often, but it was work that I always loved. So, long before it was the norm, changes had been an intrinsic part of my life. Did I know where I was going and where life was taking me? No, I didn't. But I always gave it my best and I did not shy away from challenges and difficulties. I have lost some and I have won some. There were moments of doubt, of frustration, of fear, of discouragement. And I learned in the process. I just had that general idea that I wanted to contribute to make the world a better place. Nothing particularly original — except that I never gave up.
Life in Québec for a young woman some 45 years ago, and for a young man as well when I think of it, was very linear. One got an education if possible, started employment at the bottom of a hierarchy, hopefully and slowly moving upward in the same company, up until retirement with the golden shake hand. In the case of a woman, marriage was a primary goal and it replaced work as soon as possible. I am sure that the same held true in many communities elsewhere in Canada. I was not interested in such a life. In opposition to that model, events seem to have separated my own life into segments that are quite distinct from each other, almost unconnected, although, when I look back, I see that my life is one single, unified, continuous journey into foreign and, at times, exotic new lands full of new people and fresh discoveries. I loved everyone of these years, but in order to keep my sanity, the metaphor of the traveller in a foreign land where the locals are at times bizarre has helped me through many a rough moments.
It is one thing to acknowledge that change is an intrinsic part of living. It is another one to decide to drive change, to be a participant in it, and to make a difference. We often read about today's young people feeling that their future bears no hope, because of the mess we made of the environment, increased war zones, widening famine and poverty, an overpopulated planet. These are huge challenges, I will not deny it. But there also now exist all kinds of resources and technologies of immense potential. Yes, we need to respect the limits of the carrying capacity of the Earth, but we should understand that humanity has no limits to its caring capacity. Of course, as young persons, you want to focus on developing your personal life — your love life, your career. Why see these very legitimate interests as opposed to societal challenges? They are all equally part of life.
You, more than your parents, will live in a global world, and this is very exciting. But globalization is something in the making, and it is far from being strictly financial and economic; it is bigger than just markets. It demands a new system of global values and mechanisms of implementation. It calls for new “governance” models at every levels. You will see that being discussed more and more. You will hear experts talk of the “civil society” and the need to mobilize social forces, to develop a commitment to the public realm — otherwise, the public interest is short of energy. You will read about “civility” — caring and doing something about shared concerns, concerns that affect all but are no one's business in particular. You will notice a call for a renewal of “mutuality” — the rebuilding of community made of mutually fruitful relationships with others. All people at all times do require mutuality, but we left ours erode with the abusive individualism and “me-ism” of the last decades, and now with the misuse of information technologies, starting with the Internet. So what was supposed to increase connectiveness ironically is feeding isolation and aloneness. We need mutuality more than ever. Everyone of these notions speaks to what Harvard professor Robert Putnam labels the erosion of our “social capital.”
Let me conclude by wishing you well, by wishing you to get to know who you are, to decide what you are all about, to have dreams, to turn them into vision, and to go for it!
Honorary Degree Recipients: Spring Convocation 2000
Dr. Michel Chrétien
William Hubert Rompkey
John David Allison Widdowson
Craig Laurence Dobbin
Dr. Peter Francis Neary